'AbFab' likely to be AbAwful in prime time

If making an entrance and knowing when to leave are the Golden Rules of chic, Edina and Patsy might make RuPaul envious.

After 18 episodes, concluding with the series finale tonight at 8 on cable's Comedy Central, the pair that is "Absolutely Fabulous" has possibly eclipsed every other since Lucy and Ethel in influence, point for Nielsen ratings point.


A stretch, you say? Consider that fewer people watch an "AbFab" episode on American television than watch a typical Saturday afternoon of golf on CBS. Yet, now that the British Broadcasting Corporation series is ending its first run on Comedy Central, a movie is planned -- a feat of television transubstantiation rarely achieved. Roseanne, the most powerful woman in television, has purchased rights to an American prime-time knockoff that may star Carrie Fisher. Last season, "AbFab" influenced the characterization of "Cybill," one of CBS' few successful new shows, and the network is now considering a barely disguised "AbFab" knockoff, called "High Society," for next midseason's schedule.

In fashion, haute couture sometimes ends up on Kmart's racks after a season or two. So it will be on television for "AbFab," the cult sitcom about two 40ish Sybarites -- Edina is the public relations maven, Patsy is the fashion editor -- whose bond to cocaine, booze, cigarettes and each other enables an all-but-the-kitchen-sink perversion of the Lucy/Ethel dynamic. The spirit of "AbFab" will leap into the breach of a prime-time schedule when three of TV's best comedies -- NBC's "Seinfeld," ABC's "Roseanne" and HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show" -- all sign off after next season.


But, sweetie darling, the prospects for an American "Absolutely Fabulous" are absolutely awful. To commandeer a credo that would find favor with Patsy, the Stolichnaya-swigging tramp with the Trump hairdo, "AbFab" lived fast, died young and ought to leave a pretty corpse. What will happen to "AbFab" in the afterlife will probably be ugly.

Not since Monty Python has British comedy promised to be less translatable to network television. In the '70s, "Steptoe and Son" led to "Sanford and Son," and "Man About the House" led to "Three's Company." Americanized, they became crummy hit sitcoms that dealt in offensive stereotypes, redeemed by a bright star turn or two. A third British import, "Til Death Do Us Part," became as American as ethnic prejudice and apple pie when reincarnated as "All in the Family": The exception to the rule, it was brilliant comedy by any standard.

But not even Archie Bunker's most outrageous moments were the network censor's nightmare that is "Absolutely Fabulous": Edina trying to sell Saffron, her annoyingly wholesome teen-age daughter, into white slavery, for example. Or Edina trying to adopt Romanian orphan babies as fashion accessories. Or Edina and Patsy hiring an interracial pair of gay male hustlers for an orgy to spice up their sex lives -- only to see their bacchanal end early when an unsuspecting Saffron makes off to her genetics-class presentation with Patsy's porno tape instead of her own lab video.

In "AbFab," the secret of success is excess -- in plot tone, scarcely printable dialogue and the hilarious slapstick grotesques performed by Jennifer Saunders (the series creator) as Edina and Joanna Lumley as Patsy.

Even commercial breaks are unpredictable. Scenes end abruptly, except for the nastiest of them all -- usually between Patsy and her nemesis, Saffron -- which endure well past the point where American sitcoms hit the brakes, cueing a hug between the warring characters and the audience "awww" of approval.

No, the show's slap-- rhythms won't cut it in the immaculately ordered flow of prime time. Nor, of course, will Patsy's outbursts at poor Saffron. At least virtuous Saffron is allowed to be sharp-tongued herself. Patsy's sister (Kate O'Mara), who made a single disagreeable appearance earlier this season, offered an unforgivable snap judgment of Saffron: "Well, I suppose it's too late to flush her."

Insults, regrettably, aren't new to network prime time. What is different is the take-no-prisoners sense of humor on "AbFab," with nasty words and nastier sentiments used as building blocks. Edina's idea of ending an argument with her elderly mother is to toss the trendiest shut-up imaginable: "I've started repressed-false-memory therapy -- I'll get something on you yet."

In going too far and always getting away with it, "Absolutely Fabulous" grabbed the brass ring of satire that American censors will yank away -- something Roseanne should know by now. What's more, "AbFab" not only criticized the ways of its shallow heroines, but incorrectly reveled in them.


To watch was to ride the lip of a very inside joke that will seem unattractively mainstream on prime time. An American version of "AbFab" will probably be a party Edina and Patsy would snub.